Screaming Hot in the 1990s
To many, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins career consists of his 1956 release “I Put a Spell on You,” and the coffin from which he arose to perform on stage. His theatrical, macabre image may have been novel, but his records were anything but novelties. Oddly, despite the single’s healthy sales and its iconic stature in the rock ‘n’ roll canon, it never made the charts, leaving Hawkins, technically, a no-hit wonder. But hitmaking wasn’t Hawkins’ musical metier, as he followed the beat of his very distinctive drummer with songs like “Constipation Blues” and “Feast of the Mau Mau.” And when he connected with Bizarre label owner (and subsequently manager and producer) Robert Duffey in 1990, the goal was to just let Jay “be Jay,” rather than overtly court commercial success.
Hawkins showed off his range of rock, blues and R&B on three albums for Bizarre, Black Music for White People (1991), Stone Crazy (1993) and Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On (1994). The material includes originals from both Hawkins and Duffey (including the latter’s memorable “I Am the Cool”), covers that mine Hawkins’ first-person knowledge of 1950s music, and Tom Waits’ “Heart Attack and Vine,” “Ice Cream Man” and “Whistlin' Past the Graveyard.” Hawkins’ mojo was in full flight throughout his time with Bizarre as he hollers, growls and wrestles the songs into submission. The backing bands, assembled from talented local rock and blues players (including the Beat Farmers’ Buddy Blue) backed Hawkins’ howling vocals with hot rhythms, wild guitars, tight horns, and fat saxophones.
Manifesto’s 2-CD set gathers together all three of Hawkins’ albums for Bizarre, adds five previously unreleased tracks, and a sixteen-page booklet with full-panel album cover reproductions and liner notes by Chris Morris. Highlights include the piece-of-mind “Ignant and Shit,” the tribal Bo Diddley beat of “Swamp Gas,” a schizophrenic take on “Ol’ Man River,” a fevered cover of Ray Charles’ “I Believe,” an energetic run at “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” (retitled “Call the Plumber” here), Duffey’s purpose-written “Rock the House,” homages to Sherilyn Fenn and the Long Island Lolita, Amy Fisher, and spoken word passages that echo Hawkins’ on-stage monologues. Of the three albums, the grittier production of the third has aged the least, but all are worth hearing! [©2018 Hyperbolium]